Saturday, March 30, 2013

26 Awe-Inspiring Reminders Of Just How Insignificant We Are

Prepare to feel tiny:
Furthest ever image of the universe

Source: Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV / via:
One Billion Stars in just one galaxy

The View 50 Million Light Years Away

A rocket launch over an aurora

A Not so dark Dark core

Coronal Hole on the Sun

European Panorama at night from the international space station

Enterprise flying over NYC

Groundhog day on Mars

Janus, one of Saturns creepy moons

Moon and the Milky Way

Source: Michael Shainblum
Milky way in all its Splendor

New view of the blue marble

Source: Stéphane Guisard / via:
Orion over the Temple of Kukulkan

Overlapping galaxies

Panorama of Mars

Saturn's Storms

The Pencil Nebula

Source: Adam Block / via:
9 Billion Pixels of the Milky Way Galaxy

The remains of supernova W44

The slow death of R Sculptoris

Thors helmet revisited

Source: Greg Scheiderer / via:
Transit of Venus

Transit of Venus up close

UFO Galaxy

Twister on Mars

Reposted with permission from

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Rockstar Scientist

A Science Lecture - Can you imagine one speaker speaking to thousands of  attendees?

I would like to imagine that we live in a world where:

1. Science documentaries are shown regularly in Movie theatres.
2. Science TV shows have more ratings than reality shows and other shows on national television. 
3. Schools and Universities concentrate in teaching Science and Math than any other school subject. 
4. Where the majority of people appreciate and wonder with awe about the Cosmos. 
5. Where Scientists are regarded as heroes and receives more popularity, wealth and recognition just like Movie persons and athletes. 

The last one is quite interesting. Do you remember any time in history that lectures are sold out and has lots of people attending? To be honest, I don't know one, maybe you know. 

Scientists, most of the time depends on money from the government or from research grants from private individuals or private companies (aside from savings in their salaries from their respective Universities and Research facilities) in providing that boost in their research in terms of equipment, hiring staffs, and building infrastructure. As far as I can tell, most of these intelligent minds are not rich, some are struggling, and some does not even care about the money. Nikola Tesla, one of the geniuses of the 20th century, even died a poor man.

Yuri Milner (right) with Mark Zuckerberg. Yuri is also a stock holder of  Facebook.

But that changed in 2012, when Yuri Milner, a former physicist and Internet enterpreneur, created the Milner Prize, formally known as the Fundamental Physics Prize in which winners gets a lucrative $3 million, more than the Nobel and Templeton Prizes combined. This would be a great boost for physicists in terms of using the money for further scientific research or for projects in popularizing physics, specially science. 

Based on the Michael Brooks article "Can millionaire physicists draw masses to science?" for the website

"As he told New Scientist recently, Milner plans to use his wealth to paint scientists as heroes, turning them into household names and stimulating an increase in research funding and in the number of young people wanting to become scientists. "The more attention you attract to science, the better off everybody will be," he said."

"The three-million-dollar question is: will it work? Probably not. Rewarding scientists financially is easy. Turning them into household names is not so simple. As became clear during the ceremony (latest Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony), theoretical physicists make terrible celebrities."

The article also cited that physicists are "very human". They interact with students, pupils, co-workers, spectators - ordinary people. And for me, that seems to be the most noble of all traits - humility, which fame and fortune couldn't buy. 

So I guess, my perceived world where Science is pouplar and the people pursuing it are also popular might be impossible here or maybe in some other Universe, but we'll never know what's next for our dear intellectuals. 


Friday, March 22, 2013

Is there life outside of Earth?

Watching the film "E.T." and "My Stepmother is an Alien" when I was a kid gave me that idea. "War of the Worlds", "Independence Day", "Star Trek", "Aliens", "Paul", "Star Wars" and the various UFO conspiracies gave me a different viewpoint - the normal views on extraterrestrials. My re-ignited interest in Science and Astronomy, changed that view again. Is there really life elsewhere in the cosmos?

That, I think would be the greatest question being asked by millions of people, for thousands of years. Several documentaries has tackled these questions like Carl Sagans' "Cosmos", Morgan Freeman's "Through the Wormhole", and Stephen Hawking's "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking".  Though sadly, I have not seen any other documentaries maybe some forgotten titles from National Geographic or Discovery channel but the ones mentioned are the one's I clearly remember.

I think, Science fiction and conspiracy theories greatly contributed to the "belief" that aliens exist, PLUS that these aliens are intelligent, has a very high level of technology, and most of all, almost all of them want to conquer the Earth! I trembled before of these ideas, but I suspended ... or ignored these after I became aware of what the real deal with aliens is.

Since our technology brought us to the moon in 1969, we have been gazing to the stars ever since. Some are active in searching for life using radio waves, and some are using high-tech mobile explorers in Mars to find evidence of life, and some are simply trying to observe life here - specially ones that could survive in extreme environments to determine if there is a possibility that complex biological lifeforms might survive elsewhere in the universe. 

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548 - 1600), first gave the idea that there are infinite worlds populated by intelligent beings. His controversial concept (in a time where anybody who gives an idea contrary to the religious teachings of the Catholic church would mean instant jailtime and possible execution) cost him his life. Other revolutionary thinkers tend to be discreet at that time, fearing for their lives in the process.

The invention of the telescope and the acceptance of the Copernican or the Heliocentric system (where the sun is at the center of the solar system and not earth) are the main ingredients that fueled astronomers to think further and try to answer that question. William Herschel, the person who discovered Uranus is even convinced that the Solar System, as well as other systems are well populated with alien life. 

William Herschel

Even this idea has been endeared with the religious establishment also. The Mormons believe that God has created Earth and all Earth-like planets for humans to live in. Though most mainstream religions does not believe that there are other worlds populated with alien-life as it is their belief that only the Earth is the only planet that was created by God for humans and that our species and life itself is unique in the cosmos. 

Basis for possible life in the Cosmos:

1. That the biochemical components of life which is mainly Carbon-based, is abundant in the Universe. All the elements that make up the human body - mainly Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen and Nitrogen are abundant in the Universe, based on observations of the chemistry of stars and galaxies. 

2. That every solar system in the universe has a Goldilocks zone or a Habitable zone - named after the famous story where Goldilocks tried the porridge which is "not too hot, and not too cold". It applies to a region in the solar system where a planet is in a zone where the temperatures is not too hot for water to easily evaporate and where it is not too cold to easily turn it into ice. In our solar system Earth and Mars are considered in this zone. 

3. There is this hypothesis called Panspermia, wherein life on Earth was created by the seeds of extraterrestrial material (meteors, comets) coming from outerspace or from other planets, such as Mars. 

4. Water - an essential component in mixing different chemicals to form simple lifeform, could be found in large quantities in the Solar System. 

5. Extremophiles - organisms that can survive extreme habitats (extreme cold or hot environments) has been discovered and found that these are capable of living in these environments which can simulate extreme environments in outer space. 

There are three major ways to detect extraterrestrial life:

Kepler Space Telescope

1. Kepler Spacecraft - already in space scanning the skies for planets, specially those in the Goldilocks zone. 


2. SETI - Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Uses an array of satellite dishes scanning for radio signals from outer space. 

Curiosity Rover in Mars

3. Robotic Exploration of the Solar System - Either in the form of a space probe (voyager 1 and 2 ) and robot explorers in other planets (notably Mars) like Curiosity. 

So it might take more than our lifetime to determine if aliens exist - even in its primitive simple form. But at least, when the time comes we can truly say.... We are not alone!


Friday, March 15, 2013

Dark as Night

A simple question, really. But the answer is so complex, you won't believe that it is the reason. 

Ask anyone this question, and you'll get somehow the same answer. Why is it dark at night? Everybody or maybe, just maybe almost everybody will give you the same answer. 

"Because the Sun is not around, that's why it's dark."

"There is no Sun to shine down on Earth."

"Because it is night time! Duh!"

You might get a scientific form of an answer, maybe:

"Because we are in a position where we are facing away from the Sun." \

These answers actually, is far from the real cause why the night is dark.

This question stemmed from something called the Olber's paradox. states, 

"Simply stated, Olbers’ paradox says that if the universe is infinite and static, then at any given angle from the Earth the line of sight will end at the surface of a star. An infinitely old universe means that there has been plenty of time for the light from every star that has ever shined to reach our eyes. When we look up, there should be a star everywhere, in every piece of sky. Because of this, the sky at night should be just as bright as when the Sun is up."

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, it is believed that we are living in an infinite static or unchanging universe. There are no big bangs, no expansion, just an endless sea of stars and that really poses a problem to them at that time. 

The answer to this seemingly endless question lies with some of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century - That the Universe had a birthday and that same Universe is expanding. 

Simply put, because of this expansion, light from other stars, specially the distant ones does not have time to reach our eyes. And that the light that we see now, would not be able to illuminate the space between them since they are being stretched out. So in a sense, all the photons that was emitted since the beginning of time is being stretched out. 
All the light is there, all the photons are everywhere, our eyes are just not sensitive enough to see this. At least this is my point of view. 

To dig deeper, below is an excerpt from the book Cosmic Horizons: Astronomy at the Cutting Edge, edited by Steven Soter and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.*

The oldest and simplest astronomical observation tells us something profound about the universe. The sky is dark at night. It isn’t obvious why this should be so. If you stand in a small grove of trees and look toward the horizon, you can see patches of sky in the distance between the tree trunks. But if you stand in a large forest, your view is everywhere blocked by a “solid wall” of tree trunks. Extending the analogy to three dimensions, if the universe of stars is large enough, your line of sight should be blocked in every direction by a “solid wall” of stars. If you could magnify that view sufficiently, the sky would everywhere look something like the image on the left.
The entire sky would be about as bright, and as hot, as the surface of the Sun. The immense distance to the stars making up the “wall of light” would have no effect on the total amount of energy reaching us. We should be surrounded by a blazing oven of light. Instead the night sky is practically black. So where does the argument go wrong?
The German astronomer Johannes Kepler first posed this problem in 1610. He also suggested a solution: the universe of stars, he believed, extends only out to a finite distance; once your line of sight passes that boundary, it encounters only empty space. But how far is that boundary? Why is it there? And what lies beyond it?
Astronomers after Kepler proposed various solutions to the problem of the dark night sky, which came to be called Olbers’ Paradox. In 1823, the German astronomer Heinrich Olbers suggested that starlight is gradually absorbed while traveling through space, and this cuts off the light from any stars beyond a sufficiently great distance. But that doesn’t solve the problem, either. Any absorbing interstellar gas or dust would simply heat up until it reradiated all the starlight it absorbed, and the energy reaching us would be the same. By analogy, sprinkling the air in a hot oven with absorbing dust won’t cool it for very long.
So why is the night sky dark? The first scientifically reasonable answer was given in 1848 by the American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe! He suggested that the universe is not old enough to fill the sky with light. The universe may be infinite in size, he thought, but there hasn’t been enough time since the universe began for starlight, traveling at the speed of light, to reach us from the farthest reaches of space.
Astronomers have concluded that the universe began some 12 to 15 billion years ago. That means we can only see the part of it that lies within 12 to 15 billion light-years from us. There may be an infinite number of stars beyond that cosmic horizon but we can’t see them because their light has not yet arrived. And the observable part of the universe contains too few stars to fill up the sky with light.
But that is not the whole solution to the paradox. Most stars, like the Sun, shine for a few billion years or so before they consume their nuclear fuel and grow dark. Dying stars spew gas and dust back into space, and this material gives birth to new generations of stars. But after enough generations, all the nuclear fuel in the universe is eventually exhausted, and the formation of luminous stars must come to an end. So even if the universe were infinitely old as well as infinitely large, it would not contain enough fuel to keep the stars shining forever and to fill up all of space with starlight. And so the night sky is dark.


* a publication of the New Press. © 2000 American Museum of Natural History.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What is Astrophysics?

Andromeda Galaxy

As defined by Wikipedia:

"Astrophysics (Greek: Astro - meaning "star", and Greek: physis – φύσις - meaning "nature") is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties of celestial objects, as well as their interactions and behavior."

Persons to remember:

Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-250 BC) first gave the idea that the motions of the celestial bodies could be explained by assuming that the Earth and all the other planets in the Solar System orbited the Sun. It was deemed heretical at that time when most believed that the Earth is the center of the Universe.

Ptolemy (83-161 AD) Develops the Geocentric model of the Universe where the Earth is the center of everything.

Seleucus of Seleucia - Babylonian astronomer who is said to have proved the Sun-centered hypothesis through reasoning in the 2nd century BC. He used the phenomenon of tides to support that, which he correctly theorized to be caused by the attraction to the Moon and notes that the height of the tides depends on the Moon's position relative to the Sun.

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) - wrote the Maqala fi daw al-qamar (On the Light of the Moon) some time before 1021. He concluded that it "emits light from those portions of its surface which the sun's light strikes."

Nicolaus Copernicus - in the 16th century, revived the Heliocentric idea that the Sun is the center of the Universe. 

Galileo Galilei - Discovered the four brightest moons of Jupiter in 1610, and documented their orbits about that planet, which contradicted the geocentric (earth-centered universe) doctrine of the Catholic Church of his time, and escaped serious punishment only by maintaining that his astronomy was a work of mathematics, not of natural philosophy (physics), and therefore purely abstract.

A Cornell University website explained the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics in a simple way: 

"Technically speaking, astronomy is the science of measuring the positions and characteristics of heavenly bodies, and astrophysics is the application of physics to understand astronomy. However, nowadays, the two terms are more or less interchangeable since all astronomers use physics to understand their findings."

Image of the cosmic microwave background radiation gives us some insight on what Astrophysicists do:

Astrophysicists are known for studying such phenomena as black holes, galaxies, superclusters, neutron stars, quasars, the Big Bang, dark matter and energy, cosmic strings, stellar evolution, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and many others. The cosmos is a good arena for studying pure physics because on such large scales, the particular type of element making up objects becomes less significant, and more general variables such as mass and velocity take primacy. Sometimes astrophysics is called "the study of the very large and the very small."

Well known Astrophysicists

Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Neil DeGrasse Tyson - Neil deGrasse Tyson (born October 5, 1958) is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Brian May
Brian May - Brian Harold May, CBE (born 19 July 1947) is an English musician and astrophysicist most widely known as the guitarist, songwriter and occasional singer of the rock band Queen. As a guitarist he uses his home-built guitar, "Red Special", and has composed hits such as "Tie Your Mother Down", "We Will Rock You" and "Fat Bottomed Girls". He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for "services to the music industry and his charity work". May earned a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College in 2007 and is currently the Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. 

Alexei Filippenko
Alexei Filippenko - Alexei Vladimir Filippenko (born July 25, 1958, Oakland, California) is an American astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. Filippenko received a Bachelor of Arts in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979 and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1984, where he was a Hertz Foundation Fellow. His research focuses on supernovae and active galaxies at optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared wavelengths. 

You can check out more astrophysicists by clicking the link in the reference section. 


Monday, March 11, 2013

Comet PAN-STARRS: Missed Opportunity

Comet PAN-STARRS in Western Australia after sunset

Last time I saw a comet was 16 years ago. It was the summer of 1997 and I was still a high schooler at that time. That comet - Hale-Bopp , was such an spectacle that it opened my eyes at that time to the wonders of the cosmos and of which made its way to my consciousness as one of the most cherished times of my life. 

Comet Hale-Bopp as it shows in April 1997, considered one of the most spectacular comets of the 20th Century

The past few days would have been more interesting and would have been exciting if not because of the fact that the latest comet is difficult to get a glimpse with. The comets name is PAN-STARRS. It is named from the observatory that first discovered it.  The comet was discovered using the Pan-STARRS telescope located near the summit of Haleakala, on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

If you have not seen any comet in your life, better be ready since there is another great comet approaching our inner solar system and it is hoping that it would also give us a spectacular show every night within the next few months. That would be Comet ISON. 

A comet is a small chunk of ice and rock that when is near the Sun, it shows off a tail, this is because of the solar "wind" blowing off the dust and ice particles off the comet and into outer space. Most of these objects comes from the farthest reaches of out Solar System, most of them comes from a place beyond the orbit of Neptune and most of the times beyond the Kuiper belt itself. A place called the "Oort Cloud" which is very, very far from Earth. 

It is said that hundreds of these comets enters the Inner solar system, though only a few are bright enough to be noticeable on Earth. The ones being noticed, only a few have been designated "Great" comets, these are the comets that a big and very bright, though naming a comet as a great comet declined in the 20th century. Nowadays, comets are being named from the person who discovered it, or sometimes the person who has calculated its orbit, and at some instances the equipment or telescope observatory that first observed it. In some instances the comet is named from several persons, like Hale-Bopp. 

I can't wait for the next great comet of this year 2013. And I am hoping I will be able to see many more in our lifetime. I may not be able to see PAN-STARRS, but that does not stop me from seeing many more.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Nebulae: Bonfires in heaven

Looking at a picture of a nebula gives me a "feel-good" attitude. The colors and the lights does not fail to amaze anyone. These are huge collection of gases that can be found between the vastness of space. Ancient astronomers took notice of these cloud-like features and called them Nebulae from the Latin word for clouds. Most of them are light years across and is thousands of times larger than our solar system. Some of them are birthplaces of stars. And some of them are remnants of stars that died out and emitted vast amounts of gases and different elements that we already know. The plural form is actually Nebulae though some use "nebulas".

These are categorized as Dark Nebulae, Emission Nebulae and Planetary Nebulae. Dark Nebulae are simply the dark clouds that obscure light from other gases.

Horsehead Nebula

Emission nebulae are simply the glowing ones,. they appear bright against the black backdrop of space.

Red Emission Nebula

Planetary Nebula are called as such because most of the time they resemble a shape of a planet. They have stars in their centers and eventually the gas expands or form into planets, asteroids, moons and comets.

Cat's Eye Nebula

 The picture below created by an astronomy fan, has some interesting facts too about some nebulae.

Here are other nebulas. For now no need to remember names just feel their majesty. Cheers!

Resource: McGraw-Hill: Astronomy Demystified. p338-339